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Management of Australia’s Murray–Darling basin deemed ‘negligent’

An independent review offers a scathing assessment of water-sharing policies for the country’s largest river system.

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An ariel view of the almost dry Darling River

Low levels of water in the lower Darling River are causing problems for local communities.Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty

An independent inquiry into the management of Australia’s troubled Murray–Darling Basin river system has delivered a scathing report, accusing the agency responsible of mismanagement and negligence.

A royal commission was established last year by the state of South Australia, where the Murray River ends, to review the state and national legislation and policies that manage how water is shared in the country’s largest basin, which stretches across four states.

In his report released on 31 January, commissioner Bret Walker, a barrister in Sydney, wrote that “politics rather than science” had driven the setting of limits on how much water could be taken from the river system for uses such as agriculture.

He also noted that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the statutory agency that was established by the national government in 2007 to manage the basin’s water resources, was extremely secretive, which is “the bane of good science”.

The premier of South Australia, Steven Marshall, said his government would consider the report’s recommendations. The Murray–Darling Basin Authority issued a statement denying that it had acted improperly or unlawfully. It said it is confident the plan to manage the basin was based on the best available science.

The commissioner recommends that water allocations be reset to restore and protect the basin’s key environmental assets and ecosystem functions. He also calls for an urgent review of the system’s vulnerability to climate change.

In the past month, the lower end of Darling River in New South Wales has experienced mass fish die-offs, linked to fluctuating temperatures affecting oxygen levels, and low water levels.

Quentin Grafton, a water economist at the Australian National University in Canberra, said in a statement that the findings were “a clinical dispatch of the falsehoods perpetuated for too long and that have resulted in the recent Menindee Lakes/Darling River fish kills”. He welcomed the commissioner’s call for change at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, saying that without it, the disaster affecting Australia’s greatest rivers would continue.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00438-w
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